From the Han scholar Wang Chong’s written evidence, we know that six-hundred years after the unicorn image was engraved on the surface of the Changzhi bronze yi, an image of a unicorn zhi was painted, according to ancient tradition, on the walls of a Han Dynasty law court. Archaeological evidence surviving from the first century of the Common Era also offers proof of the unicorn’s function as a door guardian, and confirms its association with the law. Carved in relief on the stone double doors of numerous tombs in Shaanxi Province dating to the Eastern Han Dynasty are pairs of two-dimensional images of unicorn zhi (Finsterbusch, l966). They are always depicted charging forward vigorously with their tails up and their heads and horns lowered to butt and repel evil-doers (fig. 23).

Figure 23. Ink rubbing of the stone double doors of the tomb of Yang Mengyuan in Shaanxi Province, dated 96 C.E.

Both in general appearance and in their characteristic butting stance, they clearly resemble the unicorn on the Warring States bronze yi from Changzhi.

Chinese stone reliefs are essentially paintings preserved in stone. Thus, an ink rubbing made of the surface of a stone relief resembles a lively painted image, and there is no reason to doubt that such images are part of an unbroken tradition handed down from the distant past. This particular example reproduces the entrance to the tomb of Yang Mengyuan, which is dated to 96 C.E. In this case, not only is the guardian or apotropaic function of the unicorns clear from their location on the doors of the tomb entrance, but their identification as zhi is further enhanced by the fact that the occupant of this particular tomb was a government official. More specifically, he was a magistrate. Thus, once again, the zhi‘s ancient connection with the law is affirmed. Also, in my opinion, the two human heads wearing three-horned caps (jiezhiguan) and holding the door ring-handles in their teeth are meant to represent Gao Yao himself.

Nevertheless, the question remains: Why were images of unicorn zhi, which according to tradition guarded the entrances to important government buildings above-ground, now moved underground to perform a similar function as the door guardians of tombs? In other words, how and why did the unicorn zhi of justice become linked with death and immortality? This was due in part to a change in Chinese tomb construction which occurred during the mid Western Han Dynasty, when the ancient Chinese shaft or pit style tombs were abandoned in favour of underground houses and palaces for the dead. These were built to replicate the layout, architectural details and decoration of the houses of the living (Wu, 1988, 96). Wu Hung has described this evolution in tomb construction, and also the significant changes which occurred in Eastern Han burial practices, whereby sacrifices to the ancestors which had previously been held in the clan temple were now transferred to the graves of individuals. According to his analysis, this change was the result of a political decree issued by the Han Emperor Mingdi in 58 C.E. (Wu, 1988, 102).

Consequently, from this time on graveyards became the sole centre of ancestor worship, and this in turn greatly stimulated the development of Eastern Han funerary art. In effect, the world of the dead and the world of the living became inextricably intertwined in Eastern Han, and as a result, images of the mythic unicorn zhi appeared carved in stone on the doors of these tomb “houses.” Implacable and incorruptible, these tomb guardian zhi were intended to serve throughout all eternity to avert or ward off any bad influences or evil spirits that might attempt to violate the underground abode of the deceased.

As far as can be determined from archaeological excavations, the stone double doors at the entrances to Eastern Han Dynasty tombs provide the first dated evidence for the pairing of the mythic unicorn zhi in China. Since the pairing of yin and yang had been a fundamental aspect of ancient Chinese cosmology from the Zhou Dynasty onward, it is possible that the pairing of zhi images could have occurred earlier. However, it was not until the Han Dynasty that many older traditions were synthesized into a coherent cosmological and philosophical system which is known as Han Daoism. Daoism is sometimes referred to as “Taoism,” using the old Wade-Giles system of romanization. However, in that system a “t” without an apostrophe after it is pronounced “d.” Thus the correct pronunciation for both of these spellings, and for the Chinese characters themselves, is “dowism.”

This system was based on the Dao, meaning ‘the Way,’ which referred to the continuous, natural flow of things created by the alternating movement of the two equal and complementary forces, yin and yang, to create harmony in the cosmos. In the late Warring States period, around the fourth century B.C.E., the Wuxing (Five Phases Theory) was added to these ancient concepts to create a system which provided an explanation of the universe as a whole (fig. 24).

Figure 24. Wuxing (Five phases) chart

These Five Phases—earth, wood, metal, fire and water—were now thought to succeed one another in an unchanging and infinite cycle, each one giving rise to the next, so that everything was in constant motion and flux, and nothing was permanent.

It was these ideas of duality and transience which seem to have provided the inspiration for the pairing of the unicorn zhi in Eastern Han art, and from that time onward, this pairing of the zhi was to remain one of the most enduring features of the mythic guardian animal tradition. Many centuries later, pairs of mythic guardian beasts would be identified as female and male. But among the pairs of unicorn images carved on the doors of Eastern Han stone tombs there are no visible gender differences. In essence, the mythic unicorn zhi represented the idea of perfect justice, not a reality, and ideas have no gender.

Previous | Next